gringo – Greeks in the New World?

March 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

The last post brings to mind the word _gringo_.

In Mexican Spanish, _gringo_ refers to North Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans. From Mexico, _gringo_ has spread throughout Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America. Some Americans take great offense at being called _gringo_, however, in my mind, the term is not threatening in any way.

Anyway, if we look up _gringo_ in Spanish-language dictionaries we learn some interesting facts. First, in a dictionary I consulted years ago, I learned that the first attested use of _gringo_ was actually from Spain and the term referred to Irish monks who visited the country in the Middle Ages. And in the Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola of the Royal Language Academy of Spain, a secondary meaning of the word is ‘unintelligible language’. It is quite possible then that _gringo_ was a description of the unintelligible Gaelic language that the Irish monks spoke amongst themselves when they visited Spain. As Martin notes in his post, the Spanish refer to unintelligible languages as _griego_ ‘Greek’. So _hablar en griego_ ‘to speak Greek’ means to speak unintelligibly. Perhaps, then, the etymology of _gringo_ derives from _griego_. If so, the  in the orthography may have come from the preceding preposition _en_ ‘in’, by means of a process historical linguists call ‘contamination’.

As for what we might call the folk etymology of _gringo_, Mexicans have a popular theory as to how the word came about. During the Mexican-American War (1840s) the US and Mexico fought over what is now Texas and other Southwestern states. US soldiers wore green uniforms. When the soldiers encountered Mexicans, whether on the battlefield or elsewhere, the Mexicans supposedly shouted “Green go!”, which derived into _gringo_. A nice story, no?

Finally, note that in Mexican Spanish, _gringa_, the feminine form of _gringo_, can be used to refer to a taco made from a (white) flour tortilla, much like the tortillas used for wraps here in NZ. So,  the next time you order a wrap, I guess, you could order a _gringa_. If the waitperson misunderstands you, it is because you are speaking Greek (griego/gringo) to him or her.

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